Monday, April 09, 2012

The Manitou (1978)

The Manitou is about a woman with a tumor on her neck who goes to the hospital only to discover that it's a fetus of a reborn Native American medicine man from 400 years ago. It was written by someone who knew nothing about tumors, hospitals, or Native Americans. It is also about 40 minutes too long.

I rented this not too long ago from Netflix. The disc was damaged and I couldn't watch it, but they had it on streaming. I sat down with a bottle of chardonnay, a bowl of sauerkraut chicken, and slogged through this thing. After watching it, I reported the disc as damaged on the Netflix site. When they asked if I wanted a replacement disc, I said no, thank-you.

So, let's examine this mess.

First: the opening credits. Most of the images used here are Hopi and Zuni or Tlingit and Haida . This is kinda weird, as the story takes place in San Fransisco (too far south or west) and the only Native American in the film is from South Dakota (too far north and east), and that guy is played by an actor who was born in Syria (too far east, by a lot). It was just watching this that made me think this film did not know what it wanted to be when it grew up.

For five minutes, this movie is going to be enjoyable.

However! There's a “special appearance” by Burgess Meredith, so we'll just be waiting for that.

Karen is a woman with a thing on her neck. She's seen a specialist, who has brought in a tumor specialist, and they're just befuddled by it. We get to see her show it to them in the hospital hallway, rather than a private room, and it looks like the worst pimple ever. Seriously, I've had ingrown hairs six inches long and they didn't look as bad as this.

Meanwhile, Harry (Tony Curtis) is a pseudo-psychic who does card readings for old ladies. After the old lady leaves, Tony takes off his magic cloak, turns on some disco, and pours a beer into a wine glass. I hate him already.

Make it a comedy, slap Tom Hanks in there, and it might actually be worth watching.

Harry gets a call from Karen and they meet up in the park where she says she's scared but going into surgery the next day. He does a quick tarot reading for her and pulls out the tower, moon, devil, and death cards. It's like his deck is stacked with nothing but major arcana.

Still can't find that red lady. Worst huckster ever.

They have a romantic dinner and get busy by the fireplace. Harry never says anything about the grody growth on Karen's neck, but he still loves her, warts and all. This is bothersome sequence for me because having known folks who go into surgery, I know you're supposed to fast before hand. Anesthesia has the tendency to make people vomit.

Harry wakes up in the middle of the night because Karen is talking in her sleep: “Pana wichi salatu”. He asks her about it the next morning when he's dropping her off at the hospital, but she has no idea so she figures they must be “words of love”.

Karen goes into surgery and, just when they're supposed to cut the thing off her neck, her heart rate goes up and she starts muttering “pana wichi salatu”. I find it hard to believe she could utter anything with an intubation tube down her throat, but there it stands. It must be MAGIC.

It's only a flesh wound.

The tumor specialist who was supposed to cut out the thing turns the scalpel on himself and cuts the back of his hand. It's a good thing the cut wasn't too deep, or they'd have to go fishing for tendons with those little crochet-hook things and he'd never be using that hand again! Left hand, though, so he could still work. It's an evil spirit, but it's considerate and knows the guy still has to make a living.

Back to Harry's horrible life and he's got another client who wants a tarot reading. While he's doing that, he pulls the death card, which does not mean death in tarot. His client moans, yells “pana wichi salatu”, floats down the hallway, and throws herself down the stairs.

I'm guessing she's wearing a pair of Easy Spirits.

Now, let's take a quick break. This scene could have been played for some major laughs, had the old lady not killed herself. It's a sequence that tells me this film should be remade, but as a comedy. Actually, when I first saw it, I thought the movie was going to go into comedy-land, like it did with Eight-Legged Freaks. Alas, no. This was our last chance to smile.

Harry goes to see Karen's doctor, as Karen's not doing that well. Neither is the doctor, really. No one is doing well. Harry bothers the doctor with “evil spirit” talk and mentions the “pana wichi salatu” hookum. It's no “klatuu barada nikto”, but it will have to do.

This is also where we get to see the doctor's big, fancy computer. I've worked in the I.T. department of a hospital, and we never had anything like that in a doctor's office. I would not trust a doctor with that many buttons and switches.

He just uses it to play solitaire, anyway.

So I guess this is supposed to look like a “modern” hospital, with all the latest gadgets. These two guys are having an argument about evil spirits in front of something that looks like it launched John Glenn into space. I think the movie is trying to make A POINT about how all our technology can't save us from the spiritual world. Screw you, movie.

After a rather pointless conversation that resolves nothing, they go to see Karen and whisper to her. Look, she's weak and getting eaten alive by a giant tumor; I don't think that makes her particularly sensitive to conversational tones. Harry asks about “pana wichi salatu” and she flips out.

CUT TO: Harry's on a mother-lovin' boat! Well, he's on a house-boat, which ain't like living in sin, and he's talking to his mentor, Amelia. Amelia is considerably younger than Harry, so we'll say he's a late bloomer. He tells her about Karen.

Fortune-telling is more of a hobby. What pays the bills is wenching at ren-faires.

They decide to hold a séance at Karen's aunt's place. Now, I'm kinda weird about this because we gather that Karen's aunt is very wealthy and flighty. I'm not sure why Karen was living there, as I figured she's old enough to pay for her own place, but we never really learn what Karen did for a living. I think she was a model, maybe, so the neck tumor is going to keep her away from gigs. Again, I'm not sure and not really all that interested in going back and pouring over this movie to find out. Maybe the rent in San Fransisco is just really high. But then, Harry seems to be making ends meet with his hoodoo scam. I also have to remember that this film is from 1978, when married women still had to ask their husband's permission to make a dentist appointment, so maybe she's only making 60 cents to his dollar. This is like some kind of strange archeology.

The séance goes about as well as expected. Karen's aunt says odd things, and—in an actually good special effect—an Indian's head raises out of the murky depths of a glass-topped table. This was cheezy but effective and I thought they handled it well. The lighting puts a visual ambiguity on the table, so replacing the glass insert with a pool of oil and having a spirit “rise” out of it is kinda cool. You could actually buy the head if you want to.

So...he's one from of those Alaskan tribes, right?

Then, the patio doors slap open with a terrible wind, the chandelier spins wildly and does not fall down, and a bolt of lightening strikes the table and splits it in half Narina style. Our heroes are up against some serious bad hoojoo.

Back on the houseboat, Amelia's husband is doing research the old-fashioned way: reading books. He finds a reference to how medicine men could be reborn and suggests contacting the author of the book, Dr. Snow. They look him up in that ancient tome of knowledge, the phone book, and decide to visit him.

Finally, an actor.

Dr. Snow is BURGESS FRICKIN' MERIDETH and he's playing Burgess Meredith in this role. From the look of that beard and mustache, he must have shot this scene while he was on lunch-break from Golden Rendezvous, or any of the other eight movies he made that year. He's a working actor and this movie is going to pay his mustache-wax bill.

Dr. Snow explains that his book was an archaeological study and that magic is totes BS. He goes on this way the entire time they are in the living room. Once in the attic, however, Dr. Snow is very into the idea of a medicine man coming back from the dead. Harry asks him what “pana wichi salatu” means. It is the last time you will ever hear this phrase uttered.

For some convenient reason, Dr. Snow actually understands this phrase and says it means “my death foretells my return”. This is in the language of the “Piscakowa” tribe, who died out before the white man got that far west, so HOW DOES HE KNOW THE LANGUAGE?

Dr. Snow goes on to say that this kind of magic is very powerful, and it would just be SO COOL to talk to a medicine man from 400 years ago. But! If you really want to fight him, you better get your own medicine man and there's only five left in South Dakota. Also, they don't like money so don't worry about paying them, because they're just Indians, after all, and don't understand the white man's money. He says this because he's an old man who forgets things, like decency.

Back in San Fran, Harry goes to see Karen's doctor, who still lets him through the front door. The hospital is about to try to remove the tumor with a LASER.

Pew! Pew!

Wouldn't ya know it, Karen's psychic tumor has taken over the laser. It's shooting holes in everything. I'm very irritated that this laser shoots white light and in bolts, rather than an instant green stream, like a real medical laser. Also, you can see the beam, so I'm guessing it was really dusty in that operating room. Granted, it was 1978 and people did not understand how lasers work. People from 35 years ago are dumb.

Karen takes this time to say that “the light is hurting him”. Everyone decides this means the x-rays they took earlier, so it looks like our 400-yrs-old shaman is going to be all deformed when he finally gets reborn. Harry decides he needs to go see that medicine man in South Dakota.

Which looks just like California. How fortunate!

I want to take a moment here to give props to Michael Ansara. You might recognize his voice as Dr. Viktor Fries from the animated Batman series. He's got a great voice and I love hearing him talk. Mike was born in Syria, so he's been stuck playing brown people for a while. Seriously, check out his IMDB page and you'll see this guy has been in just about everything. In this flick, he's playing John Singing-Rock.

Harry asks John to come save Karen. John tells Harry to piss up a rope, and asks, “If you were me, would you help me?” Harry says no. That's when John is all, “Oh, like hell I'm gonna be like that goddamned white guy!” and agrees to help for “$100000 to the Indian Education Fund”. There's no specific tribe he's talking about, just “Indians”. He doesn't even say “Native American” or “First Nations”, so I'm thinking he's not really an Indian. Or Native American. I would be right, as he is Syrian.

Karen's doctor, who should have lost his license by now, allows John to come in and perform some rituals, seeing as how modern medicine has failed everyone. John starts off by drawing a “circle” around Karen's bed in red sand. I say “circle” because it starts at one wall and ends on the other side, so there's a whole wall that isn't in the circle. We're dealing with spirits, so I don't think they care much about walls.

No, sweetie, that's an arc. You fail geometry.

They interrogate the spirit in Karen's back and its name is Misquamacas. To me, this sounds like the Latin name for the common mouse, mus musculus, which is the name of a dwarf in the Frank Schaefer novel Whose Song is Sung and that's all going to make sense in about six inches.

John is a little shaken by this revelation, as it turns out that Misquamacas was THE MOST POWERFUL MEDICINE MAN EVAH. This is really cool, as this guy is in San Fran and they heard about him up in South Dakota. I mean, the term “gichi manitou” is an Algonquin term, and may have been in the Lakota-Sioux or Crow vocabulary, but that never hit where San Fransisco is. This movie is really playing fast and loose with Native American tribes and terms. I'm going to have to guess that Graham Masterson, a native of Edinburgh and author of the book, knew very little about Native Americans. It's nice of him to write a book about them.

Now, the movie becomes a kind of waiting game during a thunderstorm. Harry asks the nurse on duty for something for his nerves. She gives him Alka-Seltzer that does not dissolve. This could have been a great comedic moment but was not and I'm irritated that more was not made of it. If you'd going to have these kinds of scenes, do something with them.

Plot plot. Fizzle fizzle.

Harry looks in on Karen and sees that the orderly that's been tasked with watching her has been skinned. He screams for John like a good little white man.

Karen's giving birth! She's got an arm coming out of her back, and not in a Trogdor or The Dark Backward way. The orderly who was skinned is giving us enough flesh to cover...

Big evil comes in small packages.

Ever done a spit-take with chardonnay? I have. But for reals? The big baddie is a midget? I was so mad. Seriously, I had to pause the movie and go for a walk around the block, deciding if I was going to finish this review. I only returned to the house because that sauerkraut chicken was causing indigestion and I need a Tums. Also, my stuff is there.

Back to the movie. Everyone is freaking something good. Luckily, the floor is mostly empty, so we don't have to worry about that. Calling the police is out of the question, because everything has a manitou, even man-made objects. Yes, guns have manitous. This is taking animism to a strange place and I hope no one ever has to drive past a junk-yard because I bet it sounds like a screaming hell-hole.

The doctor bemoans the fact that they live in a world run by computers, but they have to contend with an ancient spirit. Oh, that darn technology! It's just no good in this situation! Call Meditech and put in a trouble ticket; I'll bet there's no white-paper on removing spirits. Screw it. Just restore from the last good backup.

For some odd reason, there's an orderly asleep in Karen's room. Yes, this guy, by name of “Wolf”, is able to catch some shut-eye in a room with a woman with no skin on her back, another orderly with no skin on his anywhere, and an evil midget who's actually a 400-yrs-dead medicine man. I wish I could sleep like that. The roomie's snoring would not bother me whit one.

He's not skinned as much as sauced.

The previously dead orderly is brought back to life by the evil midget. I'm glad that his corpse still has hair, so I guess they didn't skin him all the way. He tries to strangle Wolf, but Wolf gets away. The others run into the room and the midget is moving the sand circle aside. Yeah, he's gonna break out of this place! I'm thinking the circle is really made of sugar and Misquamacas has diabetes, as that has been a major problem within the First Nations. He's just trying to make a low-glycemic escape. Just for fun, he calls forth a lizard spirit.

He must be sweating like a mammal in that thing.

The lizard spirit is...ok. The lizard spirit is a guy in a lizard costume. This is seriously dumb. If you're going to super-impose the image, why get a guy in a suit? Just get some footage of a stupid lizard and run that. This is awful. The doctor, being possessed like he was when he cut his hand, holds out his right hand for some lizard chompin'. Oh yeah. The evil midget isn't being nice this time. He's going for the working hand this time.

John and Harry grab the doctor and take him down the elevator to his office. Let's not forget that we're IN A HOSPITAL and we could have just as easily taken him down to ER to get the hand looked at, but no. An office is a much better place to treat this wound. Harry grabs a flashlight and goes back down to Karen's room. While he's been away, the entire 10th floor has been turned into a Dr. Who set.

I think it was “Planet of the Spiders”. Tom Baker's first episode, FTW!

Harry finds John who admits he's a giant pussy and can't fight the evil midget. They try to leave, but Misquamacas shows up and threatens them. Harry throws a typewriter at Misquamacas, and that pretty much dates the move right there.

This white girl just found her spirit animal.

Back in the doctor's office, everyone is admitting defeat, except Harry, who still loves Karen and wants to save her. He mentions the whole typewriter-throwing adventure, and John says it was actually the spirit of the typewriter that did the fighting.

John and Harry go back to the doctor's office and, while arguing, they get treated to a good old fashioned California earth-quake, only it's not an earth-quake.

And this is why frakking is bad, ok?

I really dug this sequence, as it wasn't just a “shake the camera” scene. They had a set that would buckle and fold and it's a great special effect. I'm sorry these pictures are so dark and murky, but the movie really looks like that, so it's hard to get a clear view. Watching the “earthquake” sequence let me know where the money went in this film. I'm sorry they didn't do more effects like this.

It's shortly after all this that Harry gets a fantastic idea.

So you can get porn on this, right?

Harry remembers that John says everything has a manitou, even man-made objects. Computers are man-made, right? Could they invoke the spirits of the computers to help out?

Again, I worked in I.T. for a hospital once, and—I assure you—if there are spirits in computers, they have no interest in helping anyone. I also wonder if each transistor or chip has its own spirit. Are computers just communities of manitous? Is that why they hate us so much? Because we forced them to live together? John says it's a fine idea.

The elevators finally stopped working.

John and Harry walk down to Karen's floor and John talks about how the Mighty Morphing Magic Midget might call upon “the great old one”, or the devil, to fight them. We get a little comedy here:

JOHN: He's also known as the great devourer. Here, wear this.

HARRY: What is it?

JOHN: It's for protection.

HARRY: Oh, I thought it was seasoning.

Once at Karen's room, Misquamacas starts to throw fireballs at them. Tony Curtis is a very professional actor in all this, using his co-star as a handy cushion for all the action sequences.

He gets paid extra for each bruise he prevents.

After dodging a few over-done and very spicy meat-balls, they finally make it to Karen's room, which has decided it wants to be a planetarium today. I don't have a picture for this, as the image is too murky. You'll have to rent it to witness this particular “magic”. The great old one looks a lot like the crab nebula. I was kinda hoping for a Lovecraft reference at this point.

The doctor turns on all the computers with a DIAL. Now, John and Harry have the resources of IBM and Hewlett-Packard to fight the midget.

I'm pretty sure this voids the warranty.

Oh! But no! Stupid white man machines won't listen to John! Darn that technology. It can't save anyone against this very powerful, stone-age magic.

Harry decides it's up to him. He's a white guy, right? He goes in with a plain-speaking exorcism that starts, “I've had as much of this as I can take!” Misquamacas is having none of it and pretty much laughs in their normal-sized faces. He's a midget and he's having his revenge. The machines aren't listening to Harry, so everyone is pretty much screwed.

But hey! Check it out! Karen just woke up and she's going to do some bare-breasted pew pew action. “Because of your love,” John says, “They're coming through her.”

Also, girls are better at using Google.

Karen laser-zaps Misquamacas back into the stone-age, literally. She even takes a few shots at the great old one, who isn't really that great. I bet all this spirit pushing really takes a toll on her fingernails. Am I right, girls?

For me, this whole ending was like the end of Krull. And no, I will not listen to you when you say that was a bad movie. I saw that in the theaters and, yes, I missed the first five minutes, but I LOVE THAT MOVIE. Freddy Jones is the awesomesauce in that and I think the Widow of the Web is just lovely, so SHUT UP.

So Karen blasts the midget and his crab-nebula buddy away and the sun comes up and everyone hug! Harry sees John off in a taxi and gives him two pouches of pipe tobacco, because, ya know, Indians just don't understand white man's money.

I watched this so you don't have to.


Unknown said...

The movie looks better on Netflix, however it's still crap. The book this was adapted from must be a real train wreck.

Unknown said...

Okay, Burgess Meredith is earning his pay here. They shoulda had him in Stoney Curtis's place.

Unknown said...

I suppose it could've helped if I actually cared about Karen or Harry. Nah, I hated them. Nothing could help this mess.

Chris Sobieniak said...

People from 35 years ago are dumb.

Like my parents!

Thanks Dr. Mila for saving me the trouble!

Dr. Mila said...

Someone likes that movie.